A Slowly Brooding Sensory Experience

THELMA (15) 2017 Norway 116mins. Director: Joachim Trier. Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Ellen Dorrit Petersen. 

Thelma, starring Eili Harboe in the eponymous role and directed by Joachim Trier, is quiet. Earlier this year I saw a similar feature, one with more jarring and cruel moments, yet a similar message - the film being Julia Ducournau’s Raw. For Thelma, the story was more meditative. The brilliance in the grotesqueness of Raw is on similar levels to the moments of catharsis achieved in Thelma, as our protagonist’s mind unwinds in situations too overwhelming for her. Our lead role is a young girl, raised in a conservatively Christian home, exposed to the terrors of discovering herself as she falls in love with another girl. This terror, however, is forced on her. The film cleverly paints scenarios that are conventional for a teenager coming of age, yet in the eyes of Thelma, a disgrace to her family and beliefs. Of course, the source of the pressure is Thelma’s parents. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Peterson as the mother and father do a wonderful job at playing the role of silence. Thelma’s most powerful feature in the film is her literal power, which I’d rather not spoil, and the family have suffered through the years due to this power. Instead of helping Thelma’s condition, her parents crush her with oppressive blame. They’d demand to know her every action in the day during the evening phone call, yet when Thelma questions them throughout the film, she receives quick and deliberately ambiguous answers, never quite resolving her confusion – the parents are a God-like presence in the film, yet they don’t answer prayers, they only command.

The presence of control over Thelma is always there, demonstrated in scenes so dramatic and beautiful, accompanied by composer Ola Fløttum’s lofty, grandiose score. In these moments her powers take centre stage, determining where the next scene will lead, giving us and Thelma an anxious lack of stability and understanding. Much of these episodes are triggered by her newfound love, Anja (played by Kaya Wilkins), as she perceives loving the same sex to be wrong and sinful. However, the first act’s transition into this loving relationship was glossed over. The pacing seemed to rush these moments to make way for the later ambitious, mysterious heights, forgetting major character development between the two girls. I feel like I could’ve cared more for them, yet despite that the pacing was restored in the latter acts, unfolding the mysteries behind the story with graceful patience. 

Assisting the overall presence of the film was Jakob Ihre’s gorgeous cinematography. Despite a slightly underwhelming scene in a night club – I’m drawn again to Raw as an example for brilliant direction of photography, as the camera weaves ominously through crowds of dancing medical students, while Thelma avoids its otherwise consistent style with a repetitive shot reverse shot - the film utilised vast amounts of space in dynamic shots that depicted a looming (once again God-like) presence, combining bold biblical symbolism with eerily stellar Scandinavian architecture. An assortment of biblical references come into play, whether perceived or imposed on Thelma, yet the most powerful visual moments are her hallucinations. These moments are completely unlikely, yet terrifying and strangely symbolic in the overall story. These displays reinforce the film’s message on belief itself, effectively imposed in many ways throughout the feature – a powerful belief can have consequences. 

Overall, Thelma excellently depicts, in the director’s words, “a story of liberation”, as the production quality and story concepts combine to create a slowly brooding sensory experience that rarely misses a step.

Charlie Davison